MANILA, PHILIPPINES - Two became three as a scheduled Monday morning meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was expanded to include Japan’s Shinzo Abe.
The change underscored the growing three-way relationship concerning regional security, especially regarding how to respond to North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, as well as countering China’s increasingly assertive maritime territorial claims.
“The key for us is to ensure very close trilateral cooperation so as to bring peace and stability on the ground,” said the Japanese leader, who has been displaying a united front against North Korea with Trump.
“We’ve got the same values and the same focus on ensuring that the North Korean regime comes to its senses and stops its reckless provocation and threats of conflict in our region,” Turnbull said. “Peace and stability have underpinned the prosperity of billions of people over many decades, and we’re going to work together to ensure we maintain it.”
?Show of military force
A massive naval drill involving three U.S. aircraft carrier strike groups is underway in western Pacific waters as a show of force.
The U.S. naval vessels and aircraft have been joined by elements of the South Korean navy and Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force.
Trump says he will make “a major statement” on North Korea and trade when he returns to Washington following his 12-day, five-nation trip to Asia.
“We’ve made a lot of big progress on trade,” Trump said at the start of his meeting with Turnbull and Abe on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit, adding that his Asia trip has generated $300 billion “in sales to various companies, including China.” However, he offered no details on the coming announcement.
Trump also had a one-on-one meeting on Monday with Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, who is the host for the ASEAN summit.
“We’ve have a great relationship,” Trump said. “This has been very successful.”
Reporters tried to query whether Trump had raised the issue of human rights with Duterte.
The U.S. president did not respond. Duterte, facing strong criticism from human rights groups internationally, replied, “Whoa, whoa. This not a press statement. This is the bilateral meeting.”
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders later said of the meeting between Trump and Duterte: “The conversation focused on ISIS, illegal drugs, and trade. Human rights briefly came up in the context of the Philippines’ fight against illegal drugs.”
Earlier, as regional leaders gathered at a colorful ceremony to open the summit in Manila, Duterte sidestepped the controversy over his war on illegal drugs and its thousands of extrajudicial killings.
In opening remarks before the 17 other leaders at the summit’s plenary session, he called illegal drugs a menace that threaten “the very fabric of our society,” without mentioning methods of the response.
“I apologize for setting the tone of my statement in such a manner,” Duterte said. “But I only want to emphasize that our meetings for the next two days present an excellent opportunity for us to engage in meaningful discussions on matters of regional and international importance.”
South China Sea talks
The communique resulting from the talks is expected to announce that ASEAN will begin official negotiations for a code of conduct for the South China Sea, where several nations have conflicting territorial claims.
A number of countries have concerns about China’s increased militarization of disputed islands it controls.
For a second day Monday, several thousand militant protesters marched in Manila, clashing with riot police who responded with truncheons, water cannons and sonic alarms to keep the demonstration out of sight of the delegates at the ASEAN Summit, which is surrounded by a security cordon.
Protesters burned an effigy of Trump on Monday. Some protesters pushed the police, organizer Renato Reyes told VOA News, who said “scores” of protestors had been injured and some had to be treated at an on-site clinic.
Local media reporters say 10 people were injured, including six police officers.
The protesters shouted for Trump to leave and accused the United States, a former colonizer of the Philippines, of looking for overseas wars.
Reyes, describing the Trump-Duterte encounters, told VOA that “the two will get along very well, but that’s not good for the Philippine people.”
The U.S. president is praising his hosts in Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines for the welcome he has received.
“It was red carpet like nobody, I think, has probably ever seen,” Trump told reporters.
Ralph Jennings and Kenneth Schwartz contributed to this report.